Acrobats of the Imperial Troupe: Japan's First Cultural Ambassadors to the West

A mysterious diary, ice cream, sailing ships, and a Japanese child acrobat so famous he became a household name… The unlikely connection between them is the “lost history” of the 19th century performance artist “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle.

Independent scholar and award-winning manga translator Frederik Schodt presented the results of his most recent historical detective work to an intrigued audience on January 23rd, guiding his talk with colorful woodcut prints, pristine turn-of-the-century photographs, and the 1905 Thomas Edison film titled “Japanese Acrobats.” The well-attended event centered on Schodt’s recently published book, Professor Risley and the Imperial Troupe: How an American acrobat introduced circus to Japan – and Japan to the West (Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2012), and was sponsored by the Davis Humanities Institute and the departments of East Asian Studies, East Asian Languages & Cultures, and Performance Studies.

Like so many “lost” histories, this one begins with a fortuitous discovery: the diary of a Japanese circus performer, written in the 1860s. In an obscure dialect, a barely literate Takano Hirohachi had described his life as the manager of an acrobatic troupe, one of the first to leave Japan and delight audiences throughout the Western world. As an artifact from a marginalized group of people at the bottom of feudal Japan’s social scale, Schodt explained, Hirohachi’s diary has been a treasure for Japanese scholars. His own investigation, on the other hand, reveals the cross-cultural significance of how the Western world discovered Japan through their travelling performers.

Schodt traced the story of their sojourn from Japan to the United States and Europe, and how their lives were connected to that of a curious figure, Richard Risley Carlisle, the son of a New Jersey sea captain. Born in 1814, Carlisle had married and founded a town by the age of 21, and had worked as a bounty hunter, a businessman, and a politician before finally making a name for himself as a world-renowned acrobat, “Professor” Risley. His performances led him and his two sons westward, and by 1849 they were playing to audiences that had followed the gold rush to California.

Like most performers of the day, Risley was constantly forced to travel, and by 1863 his circus troupe was performing in Shanghai, after having toured Dutch, English, and Spanish colonial ports throughout Southeast Asia. A year later, his travels were confined to a foreigner’s ghetto in Yokohama under the isolationist regime  of the Tokugawa shogunate. As his troupe disintegrated, Risley began a new business venture introducing ice cream to Edo-era Japan, but he still wanted to perform. Risley formed a new act, employing the Japanese performance artists he had seen in Yokohama, and secured for them the very first visas issued to any Japanese for travel to the United States.

Schodt’s talk was a tantalizing overview of this incredible journey of late 19th century cultural encounter, richly documented in his book. This is the story of how a small group of marginalized street performers became Japan’s first cultural ambassadors to the West. To find out more about this “lost history,” visit Frederik Schodt’s website at, or that of his publisher Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley.